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Starfish Decoy

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Starfish was the codename given to a system of Special Fire or SF decoys established early in World War II.

Created by Colonel Sir John F Turner, Royal Engineers, a number of different ground based decoys were established around the country, with the intention of deceiving enemy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Day decoys were designated as K Sites, and Night decoys as Q Sites. Night decoys were further classified as QF for Fire sites, and QL for Lighting sites. Starfish, Special Fire or SF decoys denoted Civil decoys, while those denoted as Q sites were military, being Army or Navy decoy sites.

Using techniques borrowed from stage and film, the decoy sites simulated factories, railway yards, docks, urban layouts such as cities and towns, airfields, and the effects of incendiaries and bombs. Many of these sites were designed and built by Sound City Films at Shepperton Studios, whose General Manager was Campbeltown born Scot Norman Louden.

A number of sites were located in Scotland, with four being established around Edinburgh, nine around Glasgow and Lanarkshire, and one on the north end of the Isle of Bute. The decoys used a number of special effects to achieve their aims, for example: lighting would be laid out in the shape of streets (or runways as appropriate), and left on until attackers had a chance to see them from a distance, then extinguished as if in response to an air raid warning. The real area would have been blacked out well in advance, thanks to advance warning by Britain's closely guarded secret radar system, and sightings reported by the Observer Corps. Flash bombs would be detonated to simulate tram power lines arcing, and the Starfish sites would ignite various forms of controlled fire, laid out to simulate the plan view of shipyards and production facilities, which again would have been blacked out in advance of the attacker's arrival. The fires could be relatively simple fuels pools, ignited as required; fire baskets containing materials soaked in an mixture oil and pitch; and more sophisticated burners, where burning oil and water could be mixed, resulting in a brilliant flare as the water changes to steam and expands rapidly, converting the dense, slow-burning fuel oil into a fast-burning mist.

While the technique was effective against targeted bombing raids, especially at night when there were no other visual cues for bomb aimers or navigators to refer to, the decoys were rendered ineffective by large scale area bombing, such as that seen during the Clydebank Blitz of March 1941.

Related deception

Part of the D-Day preparations involved tricking the Germans into believing that an attack would be launched from Scotland into Norway, and this plan included the display of dummy Boston and Spitfire aircraft at Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Fordoun. This was further reinforced by a fleet of vans carrying radio transmitters, travelling around the country and passing messages from various locations to give the appearance of troops being massed in the area. These were all part of Operation Fortitude North.

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